Am I Pretty? and a “Sonic Gaze”
Recently, a colleague remarked to me that he feels dishonest if he says “yes” when asked whether he’s read a certain book, when in fact he listened to the audiobook version rather than examined a textual version. “The natural presumption,” philosopher William Irwin says on the difference between reading words and listening to them, “seems to be that listening is easier than reading, and what is harder is better” (Irwin 2009, 360). But this feeling of betrayal of the written word also speaks to the primacy of the visual in our culture, which, of course, discounts the long oral history of storytelling before and after the invention of written text. The suggestion further is that if the body and the eyes are active while consuming words, as they so often are when we’re listening to verbal texts– we are driving, running, cleaning, etc. while we listen to our favorite podcasts or radio news – then our brain can’t sustain intellectual focus. Listening, through this cultural lens, is a secondary activity.
My aging eyes and the strain of life in front of screens has recently led me to explore alternative ways of reading, namely listening to an author’s audio version of a book while scanning the corresponding pages of text. The result has been revelatory for me, creating a deeper relationship between me, the texts, and the authors themselves. The experience has reoriented me to the written word in a way that forces me out of my own head, out of my own approach to cadence and prosody and pronunciation, and into that of another’s, often in ways that startle me into a new interpretation of the text. Even a simple difference in my expectation of hearing the word “route” (“root”) as I see the word on the page, only to hear “rout” instead, can jostle me into a state of challenged assumptions about my own interpretation of a text and expectations about the author.
I came to this film, “Am I Pretty?” with a similar goal of reorientiation of the relationship between sound an image. In this case, I sought a redirection of the expectant gaze of the spectator and to upend the primacy of the visual assumed in the cinematic experience. Although this piece contains minimal visuals to provide a blank(ish) canvas for the eye, sound drives it, with our focus as viewer/listeners on the timbre, cadence, accent, and dialect variations in the voices we hear on the soundtrack. Using found sound to build connections and reveal patterns among the experiences of young women, this piece produces an audiographic comment on contemporary girl culture in the online context.
The “Am I Pretty?” meme that forms the basis of the audio for this piece peaked in popularity in 2012, with hundreds of tween girls in English-speaking countries (my focus here) uploading videos to YouTube requesting and even demanding the evaluation of their appearance by YouTube viewers. Most girls emphasized needing honest feedback, and, significantly, wanting to know “the truth,” as if YouTube commenters were the ultimate trustworthy arbiters of such judgments. Although the meme has largely petered out, in 2017, such videos were still occasionally being uploaded.
My interest in these uploads stemmed in part from their demand of a gaze, and my own discomfort – and despair – in watching them, and recognizing that to whatever extent they inspired my compassion and empathy, I couldn’t help but have always, in the back of my mind, a sense of my own appraisal of their appearance. Yet, ethically, as a filmmaker I couldn’t work with the visuals. I wasn’t willing to be complicit in a visual culture that inspires this kind of self-judgement about young women’s looks, or to put these girls in a vulnerable or exploited position by using their images. By focusing only on their voices, which grants them a certain level of anonymity, I seek to explore the mechanism by which we as listeners almost involuntarily imagine what a person looks like based on the sound of their voice, especially in a case like this where the words we hear demand a visual assessment. The piece encourages such mental visualization by including sections in which the young women provide vivid details about their appearances – braces on tiny teeth, unbrushed hair, dimples – to ask us to reflect on the visual assumptions we make about what we’re hearing.
The film therefore shifts the responsibility for the visual track of the film from the maker onto the viewer, and in doing so makes gazing an ethical concern. As we listen, it is nearly impossible not to consider some kind of answer to the question: “am I pretty?” When placed in the position of pondering a response to this question based solely on voices, we become aware of our own complicity in perpetuating the social norms of female “prettiness” because we know, on some level, that the mental picture we paint is informed powerfully by them. With little else to go on, we fall back on social heuristics.
It’s worth noting, as well, that research in evolutionary psychology has revealed and continues to reveal the significance of the voice in human perceptions of attractiveness and judgments of personality (see, for instance, Wells, Dunn, et al, 2009). Unsurprisingly, voice pitch is linked in part to hormonal influences, which in turn correlates with our assessment of the reproductive fitness of the speaker – their desirability – as well as their benevolence or dominance. So, even if we attempt to listen to these young women with a neutral ear, primal forces shape our expectations about the appearance and attractiveness of the speaker – forces that the film invites us to call into question.
Although the tweens in these audio clips share quite a lot of sadness, to be clear, they also present an impressive range of personality traits and emotional expressions. As quickly as they’re despairing about their looks, they’re championing their favorite bands or breaking into song. They’re distracted by something in their rooms or laughing at their own jokes. They’re in a state of conflict, at that moment when the self-assuredness of early youth meets the social pressures of young adulthood, and we hear the tug-of-war between these life stages playing out in their words. Some are deeply uncertain of their status among their peers, while others are resolute in their confidence and treat the game of “am I pretty?” as something of a joke. Some are clearly working hard to maintain a sense of self-esteem in the face of critics and bullies with varying levels of success. Within this set of representations, the film seeks to demonstrate the complexity of the interior lives of young women even as it underscores the seriousness of their singular question.
The ending, then, in which a young woman declares that she truly thinks she is beautiful, is more ragged and layered than it might seem at first blush. It raises questions about what genuine self-esteem sounds like and how we, as listeners, interpret a statement a person makes about what she thinks of herself. In many cases, these girls seem to be engaging in therapeutic self-talk, to bolster their own confidence by making positive declarations about themselves out loud to an audience, or, in other cases, to express self-doubt in the hopes of being supported by their viewers. Yet, it’s not clear who these YouTubers envisioned as their audiences – their peers at school? at large? other women? men? –and in many cases these videos had under five views. So, it’s easy to imagine that these videos were not made with much of an audience in mind at all, but for themselves only, to express their anxieties, to provide a channel for self-affirmation, or to share intimate feelings that couldn’t be shared anywhere else. Those seemingly simple words – “I truly think I’m beautiful” – are therefore more about a process these young women are engaging in, rather than a state of being or a goal achieved.
As a filmmaker this film has posed a challenge because I am in the privileged, or disadvantaged, position of having not only seen all these videos, but studied their visual content. I can’t unsee these videos, and I can’t unlink their sound from their visual referents. This inability to undo presents a creative obstacle because I can’t predict what a fresh spectator might experience. Nonetheless, as a piece that investigates the impact of sound on our relationship with (non)images and documents the soundscape of young women in a meme on YouTube, “Am I Pretty?” attempts, for new audiences, to invert the spectatorial position to the screen by insisting that sound serve as the image-generator, and to embolden the voices of tween girls whose experiences of self-doubt are so often dismissed.
Irwin, William. "Reading Audio Books." Philosophy and Literature, vol. 33 no. 2, 2009, pp. 358-368. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/phl.0.0057
Wells, T. J., Dunn, A. K., Sergeant, M. J. T., & Davies, M. N. O. “Multiple signals in human mate selection: A review and framework for integrating facial and vocal signals.” Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, 7(2), 2009, pp. 111-139. doi:10.1556/JEP.7.2009.2.2
Jennifer Proctor is a filmmaker and media artist. Her award-winning found footage work examines the history of experimental film, Hollywood tropes, and the representation of women in cinema, and has screened around the world, including the Edinburgh Film Festival, Antimatter Film Festival, Ann Arbor Film Festival, LA FilmForum, South by Southwest, and Anthology Film Archives. In 2017, she co-founded the inclusive teaching initiative, EDIT Media (Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in Teaching Media, http://www.editmedia.org). She currently serves as Chair of the Gender Caucus of the University Film and Video Association and is on the Editorial Board of [in]Transition, where her video essay “So’s Nephew by Remes (thanx to Michael Snow) by Jorrie Penn Croft” was featured in 2015. She is an Associate Professor of Journalism and Screen Studies at University of Michigan-Dearborn.